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Good Science, Good Education: What the Debate Over Academic Freedom Bills Is Really About

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With bills passing in the State House in Oklahoma, and in both the House and Senate in Tennessee, legislation intended to secure academic freedom in science education has been in the news a lot lately. But this is nothing we haven’t noted before.

Every year for the past six or seven years, as state legislatures consider and pass laws, we’ve seen heads exploding among folks in the Darwin lobby. Evolution advocates go apoplectic over bills that dare to suggest students should “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” These “Academic Freedom Bills” almost always contain a clause clearly stating that the legislation only protects the teaching of science and does not protect the teaching of religion.

So why are these bills so controversial? What’s so threatening to die-hard Darwin Lobbyists? It’s simple.

The inspiration behind Academic Freedom Bills is a nationwide pattern of teachers being intimidated into silence over teaching the evidence that challenges controversial scientific ideas like Darwinian evolution. The Darwin lobby uses a climate of fear to prevent teachers from discussing challenges to evolution. Academic Freedom Bills threaten to completely overturn those censorship tactics by expressly protecting the jobs of teachers who choose to objectively inform their students about controversial scientific topics, as a good science education should.

The bills allow teaching the evidence against evolution in addition to the evidence for evolution. But Darwin lobbyists are intolerant and they don’t want students learning about any scientific challenges to their viewpoint.

Thus, Academic Freedom Bills alarm the Darwin lobby on two levels: they not only allow criticisms of evolution to be brought into the classroom, but they also undermine the method of intimidation that Darwin activists have worked hard over the years to perfect. Because the bills dramatically undercut efforts to censor views they disagree with, Darwin lobbyists ardently oppose such legislation.

The bills also pose a problem for Darwin lobbyists because everything in a well-crafted Academic Freedom Bill is completely defensible. In a word, it’s fireproof. Pedagogically, these laws encourage objectivity and critical thinking. Legally, they expressly only protect the teaching of science and expressly do not protect the teaching of religion. Desperate to justify their censorship, the Darwin lobby consistently resorts to misrepresenting the bills.

Over the years we’ve heard all kinds of false and wacky rhetoric from Darwin defenders against academic freedom legislation. ENV has posted many articles in response. For example:

And this is just the beginning. We had an in-depth article last year that addressed lots of common false claims against Academic Freedom Bills. It’s worth a read (“Lobbyists Resort to Myth Information Campaign on Academic Freedom Legislation”).

The truth, of course, is that academic freedom bills promote good science and good education–and that science education theorists agree teaching students about scientific controversies is the best way to teach science. For normal folks without an agenda to censor, there’s no good reason to oppose these bills.

At the end of the day, the main difference between proponents of academic freedom and Darwin lobbyists is that advocates of this legislation have no objections to teaching the pro-evolution scientific evidence. The bills’ supporters simply want teachers to have the freedom to give students access to more science on controversial scientific topics. Darwin lobbyists are the ones who want to censor viewpoints, using intimidation tactics to convince teachers that if they discuss scientific weaknesses in evolutionary theory, then religion and “dishonesty” will come into the classroom.

The purpose is to scare teachers, so that none will free to teach about controversial scientific ideas in an objective manner. This is harmful to education, to freedom of inquiry, and to the pursuit of scientific truth. Ironically, the intolerant behavior of these Darwin lobbyists shows precisely why legislation like this is needed.

Photo credit: “TN State Capitol & Jackson Statue at Night,” Brent Moore/Flickr.